- Family and Parenting
My Short-Lived Time as a Stepmom
Book trailer for Brenda Thornlow's latest novel Life, As Is!
I recently read an article written by a woman about how much she hates her step kids and in this article she proceeded to list the reasons why she felt this way. She actually used the word “hate” in the title which I thought was a tad harsh. Of course it's not easy dealing with stepkids. I was once a stepmom to four kids whom I didn’t get along with too well at times but I never would have used that word to describe how I felt about them at that moment no matter how difficult things may have been. You're talking about children whose homes have been torn apart.
Although I’d always known divorce is very difficult on children, I never fully understood what they went through and what might be going through their minds until I got involved with a divorced man with four kids of his own. Growing up, I went to school with a few kids whose parents divorced, but as my parents are miraculously still together to this day (I was the first member of my family to get divorced) I didn’t know the first thing those kids probably went through. Chances are they didn’t even understand what they were feeling at the time since they were so young. As a young adult I knew several people from broken homes, but we never really discussed their experiences.
Bryan & Co.
I met Bryan at a dental company I worked for in Orange County, California. I had just turned twenty-seven and he was several years older than me. He and his wife had been separated for less than a year and my divorce had just been finalized. After working together for a couple of months we started dating exclusively. Although, there was a strong attraction between Bryan and me and we got along nicely, there were a couple of times, after we started to date, when I wasn't too sure I wanted to continue pursuing something between us and felt we should slow things down a little. Sadly, I didn’t listen to my gut feelings.
I knew he had children with his ex-wife – four to be exact – but I didn’t let that bother me and thought I would have no problem handling it. If you’ve read my previous work and know anything about my background, I was pretty naïve in my twenties, having spent my whole life in a strict religious family. I was living on my own for the first time, excited about it, and thought I could take on anything. Plus, kids have always liked me, so why wouldn’t his?
I believe Bryan was so excited to have a young new girlfriend giving him attention that it never crossed his mind to discuss what types of challenges we would be facing or what my experiences were, if any, with children. I was the first person he dated after he and his ex-wife split up after more than ten years together. Before marrying, he lived with his parents. He was more than anxious to jump into another serious relationship rather than be on his own and focusing on his children.
I would never in my wildest dreams tell anyone who they should or should not date; it’s none of my business. However, if a person is thinking about getting involved with someone who has kids and they don’t have children of their own, I would recommend they talk to someone who’s been there or at least read up on what challenges they can expect to face.
As I mentioned before, I knew people whose parents were divorced but I had no idea what they went through as kids. I was newly divorced but had no children of my own. All I knew was I liked kids, kids have always liked me, I’d always been told I’m fun to be around, they’re going to love me!
After only a couple of months together he introduced me to his kids and I took a liking to all four of them, instantly. Things were fine between us in the beginning…and then reality set in. He had three boys and one girl; the girl being the youngest. She was adorable. A little freckled blond with the bluest eyes and as friendly as she was adorable. Of the four, she seemed to accept me. The three boys were equally as cute as their younger sister but it was a bit more tumultuous with them; particularly with the youngest boy. There were a few times throughout my relationship with Bryan when the youngest boy didn’t want to see him because he knew I would be around. He wasn’t one to act out in an aggressive way – he was the quiet one of the four - so if we were all together he rarely spoke, would sulk and keep to himself. It was very obvious that he wasn’t too excited about my existence. He was very close to his mother. The two older boys were hot and cold; I never really knew what to expect from them. The oldest one was already fourteen so he was going through his own issues.
There were times when the kids were at our house and it seemed as if they were warming up to me; talking about school, movies and music they liked, we would play games together, etc. Next time I’d see them….nothing. They were completely different kids. The youngest boy was back to his morose self; the two older boys were irritable, fighting with each other or their sister or Bryan and wanting nothing to do with me. I didn’t understand the problem. I thought they had finally accepted me and everything was going to be smooth sailing because we all got along great the week before!
I was convinced this was happening because their mother was trying to turn them against me. Maybe she was; who knows. It never occurred to me that they might have felt guilty about warming up to me, feeling as if they were betraying their mother. Or maybe, they simply wanted their family back together again and were angry that it wasn’t happening. All I kept thinking about was how much I was trying to make them like me and all I got from them was attitude. As a result, I began acting out in my own way. I was never mean to them nor would I ever do anything to hurt them, but I began pulling away. I began getting angry about things they would do that were technically normal kid things; but I didn’t have the patience and understanding needed to deal with it. I would even give them the same silent treatment they gave me. Acting just as immature.
This also began taking a toll on my relationship with Bryan which, let’s be honest, was not built on the most stable foundation in the first place. I would complain to Bryan about how the kids behaved to toward me, how angry I was and how I didn’t want to be around them, anymore. Now, you would think the father of these four kids would think twice about continuing a relationship with someone as immature as I was who didn’t have the patience to handle children going through such a tough life adjustment. You would also think that he would take some time to spend alone with them to work on this new dynamic in their relationship. That wasn’t the case with Bryan. He would get upset and sulk if I suggested I do my own thing while he spends time with his kids. He wanted me by his side all the time regardless of whether or not the kids wanted me there. I knew nothing and still know nothing about kids, however, as he was a dad, I don’t understand how he didn’t realize that his actions were making things worse.
According to Parents magazine, children can develop a fear of abandonment when a divorce takes place. It’s important for both parents to spend quality time with each child to rebuild their children’s sense of security, solidifying the fact that mom and dad will always be there for them. It can also cross a child’s mind that they are responsible for mom and dad’s breakup. Spending this type of quality time reassures them that your relationship with them in still intact and they are not responsible for anything. In hindsight, I’m sure there were many times Bryan’s kids wanted time alone with him but it was a rare occurrence when he would offer that option.
Sadly, I didn’t understand at that time that his kids may have been feeling so insecure. I was wrapped up in my anger that my love for them wasn’t being reciprocated. Of course it wouldn’t be reciprocated! Their little worlds were turned upside down and for all they knew, it was my fault. Suddenly mom and dad are not living together anymore and now this strange woman is hanging around thinking she’s their new BFF. Bryan and I met after he moved out of the family home, but still, it wasn’t that long after, and the kids didn't understand this, nor did they care. They wanted their life back. No wonder they ignored me or fought with us or didn’t want me at school events or softball games.
After a few years things still weren’t all that great between us but they weren’t as turbulent as they had been. I’m not sure if they genuinely accepted me as a part of their family or if they simply resigned themselves to the fact that I wasn’t going away. All I knew was that there was less fighting and tension among all of us.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Bryan and me. After four years together, I finally came to the realization that my relationship with him was not a healthy one, with or without children. I won’t get into the details, but the two of us were very wrong for each other and wanted different things out of life. Our mutual attraction to each other in the beginning, coupled with the vulnerable states were in at the time blinded us to that fact. I struggled with this realization for a long time. I had become close with his extended family and put so much time and energy into getting his kids to like me and now they would have to deal with us splitting up! To say it was a difficult decision and transition would be an understatement. I felt some guilt toward Bryan’s kids, but it wasn’t until much later - as I got older - that I realized everything they must have been going through, not only when their mom and dad divorced, but possibly when their dad and I split up, as well.
Not long ago, I wrote to each one of his kids and told them how much I always cared for and thought about them. I wanted his kids to have one last bit of reassurance that they had nothing to do with the breakup. I haven’t heard back from them and that’s fine. I simply needed them to know that they were still loved and aren’t responsible for anything.
If you’re a childless person thinking about getting involved with someone who already has a child (or children) the best advice I can give you is this:
- Think long and hard about what you're getting into. What kind of relationship does this person have with his/her ex. If it’s a very contentious relationship, think twice, because at some point you may be caught in the cross fire.
- Take things very slow. Your partner shouldn’t be in a rush to introduce you to his/her children. If they are in a rush, remind them they need to think of their child's welfare first and stand by that statement. Your partner should make sure you both are ready for the long haul and his/her child can handle meeting someone new. If you’re partner doesn’t think this is important, think twice, again. Their priorities are out of whack. A parent’s #1 priority should be their children.
- Unless you deliberately did something to the child, do not take their anger or moodiness personally. They’re going through a difficult range of emotions and don’t know how to handle it. Obviously, they shouldn’t get away with bad behavior but it’s the parent’s responsibility to worry about that.
There are many books and resources online that you should take advantage of if you are interested in pursuing a relationship with someone with children. If you know people who are in that situation of have been in the past, talk to them. Encourage those people to be open and honest with you. You wouldn’t purchase a car or a home without finding out everything there is to know about its history. The same should be true for a relationship…especially one where children are involved.
(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow
Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; The Revolving Door; A Godless Love and her memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect. Available at Amazon. (Link below)
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© 2014 Brenda Thornlow